Bright Futures

When I was about twenty, a girlfriend asked me if I was a pessimist or an optimist. Being that I was sensitive and a little melodramatic, I had recently decided that wisdom’s highest expression was a kind of informed despair. Despite this, I thought for a moment and replied, “I’m an optimist.”

If I were a pessimist, I don’t think I’d ever get anything done. I have a friend who worked very hard a number of years ago to transform education. He succeeded on a very small scale, but obviously things in the classroom still remain essentially as they were 150 years ago. Whenever he talks about education now, his ideas are always forward-looking and refreshing, but it is unlikely he will ever be a part of changing education because he has become a pessimist. People, he has come to believe, are rotten and stupid and narrow and hopeless – not all of them, but somewhere in the last twenty years the scales were tipped for the worse.

I make a point not to talk to him about education now. I think of him whenever I listen to people like James Bach or Sir Ken Robinson discuss how we learn. Much of what these men are saying now my friend has been saying since the 60’s, but these two men, and many other men and women like them, are optimistic. Which is to say they remain committed to the idea that humanity can—and indeed must—evolve. Change may be slow, but it is inevitable, and it is never corrosive, at least not in the long run.

I’ve heard it said that pessimism is a sign of intelligence. This may be so, but it is only a sign of intelligence unmoored from wisdom. Wisdom is always an expression of life’s unshakable balance. Do not argue for the balance; as with the balance you find on a tightrope, you can only feel it—there is no evidence for this balance beyond you standing tall. Pessimism and despair are nothing more than the mind’s cry for help. Life, whether we complain about it or not, moves ever forward. The optimist accepts this and assumes the future is some place he’d like to be, since that is where he is headed; the pessimist has decided that any future his mind cannot predict is not a future he wants any part of.

More Author Articles

Follow wdbk on Twitter

True Wealth

I watched a video recently in which a very famous writer was spitting mad that someone would ask him to do something for free. His argument made perfect sense: the people asking him to do this thing for free were getting paid, why shouldn’t he be paid? He detested the idea of giving anything away, and amateurs, he went on, who did do things for free were only ruining it for professionals like him.

Contrast this with James Bach, a lecturer and software tester whose business model is to do things for free all the time. Eventually, he explained to me, people offer to pay him for his services, and when they do, they pay him well. I like this approach more than the famous writer’s, as Bach’s key principle is the power of generosity. Both men, it seems to me, will make plenty of money, but only one of them is likely to enjoy it.

Desiring wealth is perfectly natural—healthy even. Everyone on earth deserves to be wealthy. However, I do not think you will ever experience wealth unless you live generously. That is, no matter how much money you have in the bank, if you do not perceive life’s inherent abundance, you will only become more and more conscious of how you might lose whatever it is you have. No amount of money can insulate you against the belief that there isn’t enough to go around.

Generosity does not mean donating to every charity that crosses your prow. What the act of donating to charities can do for some people is to remind the giver that there is enough in the world for everyone, and that more is always coming. That is the source of true wealth. And generosity extends far beyond the checkbook. Listening, for instance, is free and remains one of the most generous acts possible.

Somaly Mam, whose charity rescues girls who have been sold into Cambodian brothels, told me that while she constantly needs money, she would prefer never to be given anything out of guilt. Love, she said, is more valuable. When you give out of obligation, whether your time or money, the guilt you feel is not that you are lucky to have more than those to whom you are giving, but despair that you have succumbed to a meager of view of life, a place where the best you can hope for is to grab as much as you can, and then see what’s left to toss down to the slow or unlucky.

More Author Articles

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Free Choice

In yesterday’s Author Minute, James Bach discussed how he did not believe in laziness, that calling someone lazy was like calling an unplugged microwave oven a broken microwave oven. I couldn’t agree more.

Still, there is a reason laziness got lumped in with the Catholic seven deadly sins (sloth, technically, but there’s no need to niggle here). Like the unplugged microwave of Bach’s example, the lazy person seems from the outside rather useless. Or, more accurately, the lazy person seems to view life as useless. Unlike the microwave, however, humans do not have a visible cord, and the source of their energy remains mysterious, even, quite frequently, to the lazy person himself.

There are two sources of energy: fear and love. Fear can run you pretty hard. Much can get built, written, or painted under the secret impetus of fear. The thought, “If I don’t write this, run this, build this, do this, whatever this . . . I will be no good,” is quite motivational to some. It is particularly effective if as a rule we require proof of our value. In fact, if we require proof of our value, it is virtually the only form of motivation we will respond to. Until, that is, it exhausts us, gives us cancer or depression, or simply kills us outright.

Which is why the person we call lazy can sometimes seem strangely proud of his laziness. Though he is unhappy in his energy-less state, he understands that at least he is not a slave to that other, ersatz form of motivation. In this way, the lazy person has taken the first awkward step toward freedom.

But it is only the first step. Doing nothing is an extremely limited freedom. Eventually, doing nothing runs its course, and he is faced with the same quandary as the man creating frantically out of fear: How do I give my life meaning? Freedom then – and the energy it provides – can only come when we accept that there is no right answer. The overseer needed a whip because he had deprived his slaves of the energy of free choice. To get up off the couch we must make peace with that freedom. Being told what to do is simpler than choosing what to do, but no ex-slave ever wrote a song about the joy of the plantation. The moment you locate the source of your true interest you will have more energy than there are hours to spend it, and the couch will reveal itself for what it always was – a prison of your own making.

More Author Articles

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Teach Them Well

I have featured a number of authors lately – Sir Ken Robinson, Daniel Pink, James Bach – and might be interviewing another (an eleven year-old writing/teaching prodigy, but we shall see) who deal in one way or another with education. Until I had children, my own thoughts about education could be boiled down to: get through it and then get on with real life because you’re going to have to teach yourself everything you really want to learn anyway.

I continue to feel that way, more or less, but the fact remains school dominates our early life, returns again once we have children, and maybe a third time with grandchildren. In my own life, my sister is a devoted public school teacher, and my father-in-law started two experimental schools in the 70s (School One and A.L.P., for you Rhode Islanders).

But why is Author interested in education? Because in the end every writer, just as every person, is a teacher and a student. What we call education or a school system is us wrangling—officially—over what it means to be human. At some point, students—and particularly child students—will ask, “Why do I have to do this?” This is an entirely legitimate question, and our answers, from, “Because I said so,” to, “Because it’s what we do,” to, “I don’t know,” reveal to us our current view of life, sometimes buried beneath useless habitual thinking.

I sometimes think of my characters as students in this way. They ask me, “Why do I have to go talk to the king?” Because I said so isn’t going to work. Those characters, just like our children, want to be themselves, and so I have to find the real reason my hero would go to the king. This search for the character’s self is the joy and challenge of writing.

The same is true of teaching. All we are ever teaching is how to be ourselves. Strange to think because every route toward the self is different, but the route is never the point. That the route exists is the point. I’ve known good teachers and I’ve known bad teachers and all the good teachers share one thing in common: a knowledge that life is interesting and meaningful. Without that understanding, you can never teach anything, you can only share your misery and hope your students reject you emphatically enough to wake you from your nightmare.

More Author Articles

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Ban A Book

I was reading article by an author recently who’d just had a novel of hers banned for the first time. She considered it an honor of sorts, as she could now join a pretty prestigious group (James Joyce, Maya Angelou, and Mark Twain, just to name a few).

It seems to me that as long as there have been books, people have wanted to ban them. If only those doing the banning understood how counter-productive their efforts were to their goals. I recently interviewed James Bach, whose book, Buccaneer Scholar, advocates a kind of radical self-education. He complained to me that no one had become really upset about the book yet. He knew once controversy surrounded it, the sales would take off. Or, to put it another way, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

If you really want to ban a book, what you should do is write a better one. But this advice is not just intended for Bible-clutching members of a Texas School Board. I have read erudite articles in erudite magazines where an erudite writer moans about the paucity of quality prose in contemporary literary fiction.

If you don’t like what’s out there, write something better. Humans are dependably imitative. If you provide a better alternative to whatever offends you, guaranteed people will not just flock to it, but will begin churning out knock-offs before your first royalty check has arrived. In this way, you will have banned whatever book you want banned through Darwinian obsolescence.

Really, then, we all ought to celebrate those books we love to hate. They are instigators. But never bother trying to keep someone from liking something they already like—it’s too late. If you really believe there is a better way, show it. Perhaps you are right.

Or perhaps you will discover that the fear that drives someone to pull Huckleberry Finn off a library bookshelf is not the fear of an offensive word, but the fear of freedom itself. We are all condemned to making up our own minds, and trying to keep someone else from doing it will never save us from the fact that in the end we are completely responsible for our own lives.

More Author Articles

The Sellout

A young man who works with me on the magazine is contemplating returning to college and finishing his degree. In the meantime, he is an avid and varied reader, picking up everything from A Tale of Two Cities to Noam Chomsky. Last night I said to him, “You know what you are?  You’re a buccaneer scholar.” “Buccaneer scholar” is a term James Bach coined in his book by the same title to describe people who learn independently outside of a traditional school setting.

My friend seemed to like this description. “Yeah, I’ve always learned that way,” he said. “That’s why I worry about selling out if I go back to school.”

I told him he should do whatever he wanted and never worry about selling out. I have never liked the term sellout. It’s a mean spirited assessment of someone else’s business. But it’s obvious enough why have the phrase. All artists—all people, really—are wrestling to some degree with the question of whether what they love most can keep bread on the table. The sellout, it would seem, has sacrificed all honor and love for mammon. His reward is a large house and an empty heart.

The inference, of course, is that the sellout should have been willing to accept whatever meager living his passion could afford him. Yet why would we care what someone else chooses to do with their time? Why waste a single breath complaining about what roles an actor takes or what books and author writes?

Because we don’t really care what anyone else is doing. We care about what we will do, and every time some artist we admire makes a choice that seems to have been made with an eye on the marketplace instead of the heart, we might let our own resolve crumble just a little bit. Never mind that we have no idea nor any business knowing why someone does or doesn’t do something—we invent their reasons to answer our own fears, either for or against.

One of the greatest lessons we can all learn is that love, if you let it, can beget wealth. The two are not mutually exclusive. Yet we have often divided them, rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But they are not divided at all, they are one in the same, and when you can wed them, the world turns from a harsh landscape to be endured through whatever means necessary, to a garden exactly as beautiful as the amount of love with which it was sewn.

More Author Articles